(Fake!) Epitaph to Jesus

For my Historical Jesus class this semester, we were asked to create an obituary for Jesus through the lens of someone from the period.  We were given some examples which I felt were a little anachronistic (Osama bin Laden’s obit from the New York Times was one of them).  So instead of doing a modern obituary, I chose to produce an epitaph like those commonly found in the ANE around Jewish settlements in what was Judaea and also the Diaspora (in Egypt, for example).  I drew heavily upon the translations by Hurbory and Noy and lengthened it considerably; I also added a little academic analysis (though not comprehensive, obviously–I didn’t want to bore the professor).  It was tons of fun to produce and I had fun ‘analyzing’ the ‘inscription’.  Here is the “translation” and analysis (lengthened slightly from the original assignment)–it presumes that no New Testament writing survives:

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Necropolis near Nazareth: 1st Century CE. Epitaph on tomb; Bilingual (Greek text with Hebrew names).  Unknown scribe, commissioned inscription.

Inscription translation:

Hold! Passers-by!  Weep and mourn for the man in this tomb.  This is the tomb of the good man Jesus, only son of Joseph, of Nazareth.  He was taken down to the underworld in the 19th Year of Caesar Augustus.[1]  Look on this tomb, passersby, and beat with your hands thirty times for the thirty year old that has was snatched by Hades.[2]  For his mother, Mary, grieves for the loss of her son that pleased her, and had caused pain to none.  Grieving also are his companions, with whom he traveled, Peter, Mary, Judas, and John.[3]

For though he spread the news of the Lord, a path of righteousness and salvation, he was harassed by Death and woes![4]  Beset upon by the wicked, he was tempted, yet prevailed only to be met with a senseless end, to be hung on a tree![5]

[…] three days […] he will be raised […] unto the Lord![6]

O! All-subdoer, great Hades, why have you forsaken this man to his fate?  Hear me, wayfarers! Glory be given to the soul of the body with which they have placed in this tomb.  Though he was borne into a humble home, loved by all, and raised by his family to love the Lord, he found strength in the path of righteousness.  Majestically he traveled, never set to one place, teaching about the law as though a prophet.  To the tomb he went, as a man unmarried and chaste unto the Lord.

Weep for the dead Jesus, taken from his elder years by the wickedness of betrayal.  Set to earthly destruction for crimes he did not commit.[7]

Passers-by, speak softly when you go by of this tomb!  Do not disturb the stone walls or the sleeping dead within.  Rest now, Jesus, child of the Lord, untimely dead.  Grieve for those who are left behind. Farewell.

On behalf of Joseph the Arimathean, follower and friend of Jesus, lover of the Lord, who has commissioned this inscription, with those names of the community listed below.  Fortunate was the man, Jesus, who had companions such as these, though unfortunate in his demise.[8]


[1] “19th year of Caesar Augustus”, that likely is the 19th year of his reign, about 33 CE.  Information on 1st Century CE Nazareth is limited; not much archaeological evidence for the type of settlement in this period.  Likely a small village and scarcely populated.

[2] “Hades” (άδης); unlikely to have been incorporated at the behest of the commissioner of the inscription (see below), probably added by the scribe in place of Sheol (שְׁאוֹל). If incorporated by the original commission, it may imply that the group that associated with this figure Jesus wereat least slightly Hellenized, and that their sectarian views were developed, in part, through syncretism (see note 3 below).

[3] Given the rarity with which one includes so many individuals on funerary inscriptions (outside of the family names), it is likely these individuals were part of a sectarian group who held up Jesus as their sect leader.

[4] Death is here personified, similar to the Testament of Abraham in the Pseudepigrapha.

[5] “Hung on a tree”, perhaps indicative of Deut. 21.23, “…his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God.” This probably implies that he died by crucifixion, which might explain why the inscription bares the statement that his demise was ‘unfortunate’.

[6] This section is very badly damaged.  Unsure what the implications are of the phrase ‘he will be raised’ (ἐγερθήσεται).  Too many words obscured from the original inscription to make any clear indication of its actual meaning, though perhaps the translation is similar to the Hazon Gabriel, if one were to accept Israel Knohl’s translation: ‘to rise from the dead within three days.’

[7] “Crimes…” Possibly indicating that he was falsely accused of something that warranted ‘hanging from a tree”, i.e., crucifixion.  If this was indeed a sectarian leader, possibly associated with his teachings (maybe radical?) or with something he may have done or said against the Romans who occupied Judaea at this time.

[8] The list of names has been destroyed by time.  Likely Joseph of Arimathea was a follower of Jesus or a member of his sect; he must have been wealthy in order to commission such a large inscription.

UPDATE 10/3/13: No, Joe Atwill: Rome Did Not Invent Jesus

Note: Additional updates from 10/9 and 10/10 are below–scroll down to see them.

Apparently Joe Atwill has made a “documentary” of his book Caesar’s Messiah.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient Jewish texts discovered in caves in Israel in 1947, give a different picture than the idyllic first century Holy Land of the Gospels. From year one, there were battles and confrontations between the Romans and the Jews, the Scrolls note, and there was no turning of the other cheek by the likes of rebel leader Judah of Galilee. And there was nary a mention in the Scrolls of the peaceable prophet Jesus Christ.

“This is where I came into Christian scholarship,” says Atwill, 63, an investor who lives by the proceeds of a dot-com sell off in the 1990s. “There was supposedly this character, Jesus, wandering around in Galilee. Nobody knew anything about him. Galilee is only 30 miles long. Jesus and other historical figures of the time would have known each other.”

Atwill, an admittedly bookish man, dived in headfirst, digging out whatever historical records he could find, studying the Scrolls, and reading Roman accounts, notably that of a family member of the Flavian dynasty of Caesars named Josephus. He found no historical Jesus in any of those writings. But there were some uncanny connections between the story of Jesus as told in the Gospels and the family of Roman emperors who took power after Nero was forced to commit suicide following a coup d’état.

I mean this is just golden cow scat. Seriously. Why? Because that is what you’re watching.

Let’s start with the blurb itself. Just the little snippet above should put anyone off from even considering this hypothesis.

  1. The Dead Sea Scrolls were not all written in the first century, but spread out over many. There are more than 200 years of texts here, from the terminus a quo of the earliest manuscript to the terminus ad quem of the latest (3rd Century BCE – 1st Century CE). So no, Atwill, you’re not going to find a match to the Gospels because these were written after the Dead Sea Scrolls had been hidden away in the caves of Qumran. In fact the site was probably destroyed by Romans during the First Jewish War–prior to when it is generally believed Mark wrote the first Gospel around 70 CE.
  2. The Gospels follow a pattern of what is called ‘Biblical Rewriting’ which was a common Jewish practice, just as ‘Homeric rewriting’ was common with Greek and Roman writers. So actually the Gospels fit quite well within the scribal framework of the Jewish community at the time.
  3. Why would the Dead Sea Scrolls mention Jesus when the settlement where these scrolls were probably written is over 130km (80 miles) away from Galilee? That is the distance between New York City and Philadelphia. Additionally, the sect at Qumran seems to have kept to themselves, living strict pious lives of obedience to god and to their laws. I do not believe them to have been Essenes–though probably quite close to them.
  4. Who else would have mentioned him? We have no contemporary attestation to anything from the 30’s CE from Galilee beyond archaeological finds (coins, epigraphical evidence, etc…). But that does not mean to suggest none existed from the region. Between the Jewish wars, the passing of time, we’re lucky we have anything from the region. This is a weak argument from silence.
  5. If you’re coming ‘into Christian scholarship’ from this position, you’re doing it wrong.
  6. Your argument that “Nobody knew anything about him” is incredible (Fixed!) since we have Gospels and epistles probably dating to the First Century CE. These may not have been accounts of what Jesus said and did, but they certainly demonstrate that a figure of Jesus was well-known to at least some people in the First Century.
  7. If you’re claiming to have ‘dived headfirst’ into the sources, does that mean you have a grasp of Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, Nabataean, and Hebrew? What about just Greek–since you predominately use Josephus? I suspect that, given your book only has something like 7 footnotes and almost all of them are from Josephus, you haven’t quite managed to take into account all the sources.

Atwill then suggests the following hypothesis so centric to the thesis of his book:

Sometime in the mid 70s AD, Atwill suggests, Greco-Roman intellectuals wrote the now-well-known stories—in Greek, not the popular Aramaic of the Judaic populace—about the Jewish messiah who defied the Judaic traditions of militancy to preach a sweet, accommodationist message.

I’ll break this down too. What the hell.

  1. You’re not using ‘Greco-Roman’ correctly. (You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means)
  2. Greek was commonly used by Jews in antiquity–Josephus, Philo, some of the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, various Jewish pseudepigrapha, the Maccabees (though maybe from a Hebrew original–uncertainty here), Jesus ben Sira (i.e., Sirach), various apocrypha (Tobit, for example–though maybe originally written in Aramaic, more uncertainty here). It depended upon their education and their level of assimilation which anyone familiar with the socio-cultural period of the Hellenistic-Roman periods would be able to explain easily. Atwill clearly has no grasp of these concepts, probably because he didn’t bother reading anything related to this despite his self-acclaimed ‘bookish-ness’.
  3. Jesus’ message in the Gospel is not new or anti-Judaic. In fact, it is quite Jewish (see anything written by James Crossley, for goodness sake).

All in all, Atwill proves he is incapable of taking this subject seriously–his not being a scholar aside, he completely misses the more logical argument to make from the Josephus-Gospel parallelisms, which also happen to be the same arguments made by Steve Mason in his now-famous work on Josephus and the New Testament: that either the Gospel authors or Josephus were using each other as intertextual references (I think it quite obvious that Luke had copies of Josephus, actually–a point Mason glosses over in a paragraph but never admits fully, but also what Richard Carrier argues here).

If you are planning to go see this movie, please, bring a disposable bag so you can properly rid yourself of the dung that undoubtedly will be thrown at you during the presentation.

**UPDATE 10-9-13**

Since this “documentary” first appeared, it seems that Mr. Atwill is again trying to profit off the ignorance of others. Now, self-styled as an ‘American Biblical scholar”, Mr. Atwill is peddling his book of lies and misleading theories to those in the UK. This nonsense does not deserve another post; but I will update this one because it can’t go along unopposed.

First, and let me be clear, nothing Joe Atwill has written is ‘conclusive’. In order for it to be conclusive, it would have to surmount all arguments against it. Unfortunately for him, he fails to grasp even basic knowledge about the subject. For example, he makes the rather bizarre claim that:

“In fact he [Jesus - ed.] may be the only fictional character in literature whose entire life story can be traced to other sources. Once those sources are all laid bare, there’s simply nothing left.”

Yet this is simply false. The Hebrew Bible is full of fictional literary characters whose entire life story can be traced to other sources. His hyperbole is bizarre. But even so, is Atwill seriously suggesting that fictional stories cannot be written about historical people or events? Wonder Woman is a highly fictionalized and heroicized literary figure inspired by an actual person, the creator’s wife, Elizabeth Marston. Wonder Woman meets Atwill’s classification as a “fictional character in literature whose entire life story can be traced to other sources.”

So it might be argued that maybe he was referring t ancient literature, but even then he is ignorant of basic figures that anyone with a minutiae of Classical education can speak upon. In ancient literature, the figure and legendary king of Sparta, Lycurgus, is entirely mythicized in literature yet may have been a real person (scholarship is split on this). The mythological tale of Gilgamesh, who we have no actual historical information on, is considered to be a historical figure and ancient king by most leading Sumerologists and yet his entire life story is one of our earliest extant written sources and one of our earliest written myths period. The biographies of Plutarch are propagandist fantasies of his about the lives of historical people like Alexander the Great (mixed in with purely fictional figures like Romulus).

This should be enough to make my point; Atwill makes claims that cannot be supported when those with some basic knowledge of the subject explore the claims further. This is a serious flaw in Atwill’s work. He makes claims but doesn’t seem to realize how ridiculous they actually are; it is that scholars find his work “outlandish”. It is just plain wrong. I mean it is still crazy talk, but it is more that his whole premise is wrong.

For example, like all sensationalist crap-dealers, Mr, Atwill claims to have discovered the secret, super-dooper, hidden code in the text. Amazing! I self-proclaimed “Biblical scholar”, with no formal training in the material, has used his magic decoder ring and stumbled upon a code! How clever of him. He states:

Atwill’s most intriguing discovery came to him while he was studying “Wars of the Jews” by Josephus [the only surviving first-person historical account of first-century Judea] alongside the New Testament. “I started to notice a sequence of parallels between the two texts,” he recounts. “Although it’s been recognised by Christian scholars for centuries that the prophesies of Jesus appear to be fulfilled by what Josephus wrote about in the First Jewish-Roman war, I was seeing dozens more. What seems to have eluded many scholars is that the sequence of events and locations of Jesus ministry are more or less the same as the sequence of events and locations of the military campaign of [Emperor] Titus Flavius as described by Josephus. This is clear evidence of a deliberately constructed pattern. The biography of Jesus is actually constructed, tip to stern, on prior stories, but especially on the biography of a Roman Caesar.”

First, and let me be clear, are there striking similarities between Josephus and the Gospel of Luke? Yes, there are. Steven Mason, a real scholar, has published an entire volume on the subject called Josephus and the New Testament. Richard Carrier has also written on the subject of the parallels between Josephus and Luke-Acts. Joel Watts, an actual student of Biblical Studies who has done graduate work in the field (unlike Mr. Atwill), has written an academically-published book on some interesting mimetic elements between Mark and Josephus.

The difference between what these scholars have written and what Mr. Atwill have written is threefold: (a) all of them have academic training in Greek, (b) all of them published through an academic press (Carrier is the exception, but he has published academically and is qualified on the subject), (c) None of them make the illogical leap that similarities between Josephus (a Jew) and the Gospels (written by Jewish authors) mean that the Romans did it. In fact it is the same misguided leap that some evangelicals make about God. “We don’t know, ergo ‘God did it’.” Instead, all of these scholars agree that the most rational reason for these similarities is that the Gospel authors had copies of Josephus, or Josephus had copies of the Gospels. This sort of interplay of texts is not new in the ancient world.

Second, notwithstanding this damning evidence against him, Atwill’s premise is quite narrowed and simplistic, demonstrating a critical lack of understanding of the cultural dynamics of Judea in the first century.

"Crap...why didn't we just use psychological warfare against these guys?"

“Crap…why didn’t we just use psychological warfare against these guys?”

There exist over 30 Jewish sects that we know of from the first century, and have some basic understanding of their belief structures. There are some dozens more we just know by name. On top of that, we have to conclude there are perhaps dozens, if not hundreds, more Jewish sects of which we simply have no record. What is so interesting is how incredibly different each sect is from each other.

Despite Atwill’s unlearned claim that the Jewish people were expecting a ‘Warrior messiah’, in truth there is no universal version of a messiah. Even among the same sect, over time, the concept of their messiah would change. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, which Mr. Atwill seems to think he knows so well, the language of the messiah and his purpose changes (in fact at one point, we see two distinct messiahs at once–one a priestly messiah and another a kingly messiah). Some sects did not even expect a messiah at all. Any of the numerous works on messianic expectations published in the last two decades utterly annihilates any claim that Atwill is making about some uniformity in Jewish thought and ritual.

Even logically, his analysis is flawed. If this tactic was used against the Jews, why didn’t the Romans use it against an even greater threat: the Gauls?! The Jewish people were never as serious a threat to the Empire as much as the Gauls were–who sacked Rome twice and destroyed Legions. Atwill never seems to consider how basically incompetent his thesis is in this regard. If the Romans had such success against the Jews using this “psychological warfare” (anachronism alert!! Danger! Danger!), why don’t we see this happening against all of their enemies? It is just so beyond absurd. It really is.

Here is the thing; it may be that Mr. Atwill is completely clueless about this. Maybe he isn’t just trying to scam everyone and sell a bunch of books to a group of gullible people. Maybe he legitimately hasn’t read anything relevant on this subject or any recent scholarship on it.

"What?  'The Romans Invented Jesus'?  What a rip off!"

“What? ‘The Romans Invented Jesus’? What a rip off!”

But that is troubling–would you want to read a science book written by a layperson who hasn’t read a single relevant scientific study? Would you pick up a book on engineering written by someone with a background in computer science, and trust that book enough to build a house based upon its designs? I hope not. I sincerely hope that no one would agree to trust either of these books.

This is the issue with Mr. Atwill. He may sincerely believe he has discovered the secret code off a cereal box with his 3-D glasses he found inside; that doesn’t make him an expert in the subject, it doesn’t make him knowledgeable enough to give lectures on it. It certainly does not make him credible.

Mr. Atwill is just like all the other amateur-Scholar-wannabes who refuse to put in the time and effort to earn a degree in the field, who want to advance their pet theories to sell books and dupe you over. He relies on popular media and the ignorance of the layperson to score points rather than publishing in a credible academic journal or publishing academically. He knows he can’t do that, because he has no clue how academics work, how they think, or what they actually argue on the subject. He might as well claim that Jesus lived on Atlantis, which came from Mars. That theory is about as ridiculous as the notion that Rome invented Jesus.

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Image courtesy of Steve Caruso.

*UPDATE 10-10-13*

You’ll want to check out some additional take-downs:

(Shameless plug): For an academically published volume on the historicity of Jesus (which does not contain wild conspiracy theories), consisting of essays from scholars all over the world (the first such book of its kind to my knowledge), consider my co-edited volume ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus (Sheffield: Equinox/Acumen, 2012/2013).

Fall Approacheth!

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In just a few weeks, my summer will end and the Fall Semester will have kicked off officially.  When that happens, I will be blogging more regularly again on this site.  It should prove to be an interesting semester indeed!  Two courses which I am greatly looking forward to are ‘Jesus’ and ‘Classic Mythology: Then and Now'; the first is of course about the figure of you-know-who and his portrayal in antiquity; the second is a special analysis of literary figures and how they shift through time *in literature*.  Very interesting and both courses are related to one another to a large degree and I think that will make the semester that much more exciting.  I will, as always, be blogging through my semester.

In the mean time, I am doing a lot of blogging on my secondary site and packing up my stuff for a big move!  So ‘Musings’ will be silent for a few more weeks yet.

Tackling a Storm God: A Deist’s Impression of Yahweh and the Control over Weather

1. The Crisis

On May 20th, an F5 tornado wrecked havoc in the community of Moore, Oklahoma. Scores of people died, including children; the tornado spared little. Through the devastation, a community mourned together and united, an inspiring story that has brought tales of heroism and perseverance in the face of such a catastrophic event. But like a Classical Greek play, a divine force takes a strong role as the great and powerful rod of Justice and Vengeance. This time, however, the narrative is just too annoying for me to stay out of it.

There are three sides of this story represented in the media, by talking heads and pundits, that make up this little ancient tragedy redivivus: (1) On the main stage is Yahweh, the omnipotent, destroyer of the wicked and/or savior to the fallen, but there are also (2) the fundamentalist, ultra-conservative Christian Army and (3) the disbelieving, anti-Religion, secularists who are both trying to spin this disaster to fit a preconceived notion about how the universe works and which forces govern the weather. It is a story that has played out in nearly every tragedy. I’m not saying who I think is right or wrong, but I do think that there is a serious mental lapse happening in both groups. As a agnostic deist, I have one foot in heaven and one foot in hell, and I’m quite content here; but it does give me, I believe, an interesting perspective on the situation and, frankly, I’m just too annoyed by all the polemics and rhetoric to not get involved.

2. The Blame Game

During the 2nd Century CE, Marcus Aurelius launched an assault on the Quadi, a Germanic tribe that had successfully routed a Roman Legion and laid siege to a town before being driven back by Aurelius’ army. During this assault, the Quadi had gained the upper hand. At one point, his army starving, dehydrated, and near defeat–surrounded on all sides by a vicious enemy intent on killing them, Marcus Aurelius humbly prayed to the gods for help. Within moments, a sudden storm brewed on the horizon and quickly started to drench the tired, thirsty Romans. Thunder crackled above them and giant lightning bolts seemed to be hurtling down into the ranks of the Quadi–some were struck, others scattered; the Romans, taking this as a sign, pressed forward and won the day.

A relief from the Column of Marcus Aurelius is a contemporary witness to the event; Notice a god hovering over the Roman legion, water raining down from his arms and body, with soldiers lifting up their shields so they might be filled with water.

This may sound like a fantasy story. In fact, the event probably did happen. Rainstorms, thunder and lightning, are all common natural phenomena and on hot days these storms can build up and strike without warning. Testaments to the event are highlighted by minted coins immediately following the victory honoring the gods and a relief on the column of Marcus Aurelius. Cassius Dio also tells us of the event, though his version of the tale is lost–possibly because of the weathering of time or because it was purposefully removed by Christians who wanted to have a monopoly on a god who grants miracles.

The reason I would consider that second possibility is because the only version of the story from Dio that we have available to us is one by an 11th century Christian monk named Xiphilinus (who, clearly, had copies of Dio’s tale). He accuses Dio of lying and suggests that, in reality, it was a Christian who prayed to Yahweh who then granted his wish and destroyed the enemy; in these fantasy stories, the kingly figure (in this case Marcus Aurelius) then is said–per Xiphilinus–to have bowed down and thanked Yahweh for his life-giving miracle. [If this sounds familiar, it is because there is a similar story (sans weather, but still miraculous) in Josephus concerning Alexander the Great.]

Do you see what he did there? He took one miracle story for the Roman pagans and made it all about Christianity. You may (aptly) be asking what this has to do with Oklahoma. Everything, unfortunately. As with the rain storm that saved Aurelius’ legion, due to the exceptional nature of the event, everyone feels the urge to look for deeper meaning. Though unlike Jupiter, who flies over the thirsty soldiers giving them a storm of life-giving rain, certain Christian groups have suggested that Yahweh has instead reverted back to his Old Testament ways, destroying towns and killing people because he is angry and vengeful. This is no idle position; for these Christians, they have Biblical support for this claim.

God floods the earth by opening the gates of heaven. Not so different than sending tornadoes towards populated towns.

In Genesis 19.24, God reigns fire down from the heavens. And in Exodus 9.23, Moses calls upon Yahweh to send forth a storm upon the land–which Yahweh does, causing it to thunder and lightning, rain and hail. Again in 1 Samuel 12.18, Samuel asks God to send a storm and once more he does this. Why all the storming? Because Yahweh is, after all, a storm god. No more clearly is this a thing than in 1 Kings 8, where Elijah has a ‘God duel’ with the prophets of Baal (another storm god). As it goes, Yahweh wins by ending a drought that has strangled the land by sending a storm. Yahweh controls the weather; the Bible is very clear on this. The sky is his domain, so much so that Moses has to climb a mountain to be with him (something akin to other storm god motifs–like Zeus on Mt. Olympus [also recent evidence suggests people gave offerings to Zeus at Mount Lykaion]). Indeed, Jesus’ command over the storm at the sea of Galilee and his ability to perform water miracles is a testament in the author’s portrayals to their recognition of Yahweh as a god of the storms and weather.

These storms are often associated with devastation–not salvation. So is it any wonder why highly religious people, like Pat Robertson, put the blame of the destruction of the storm on the victims for not praying as often as they should? Is anyone really surprised that Westboro Baptist Church blames a gay man for the wrath of god? They are merely following with the trope of the storm god so eerily laid out in the Bible. After all, something goes against god and god sends a lightning bolt at you (or a storm, or a drought–his call). Let me be clear, as these individuals are resting their understanding of the temperament and morality of god on the Bible, they aren’t wrong in their interpretation.

But atheists and other secularists in their own way have abused this to fit their agendas as well. One atheist group, rather than raising the money to support all the victims, thought it proper to raise several thousand dollars only for a single victim–a poor woman who had the misfortune of being mistaken for a Christian during an embarrassing interview with Wolf Blitzer–because she came out publicly as an atheist.

The interesting bit is that the Christian fundamentalists and the atheists are all asking the same thing: If god is all powerful, then why did this happen? It is a valuable question that deserves some consideration.

3. The Logical Problems of a Omnipotent God and Weather Catastrophes

This is where the whole logic of mainstream Christianity gets a little choppy. Following the tornado, many Christians called for prayer, but also the condemnation of Pat Robertson and others who are so quick to put the power of the storm in god’s hands. On the face of it, I see no problems with prayer and I certainly see no problem criticizing fundamentalists who put the blame for tragedy on innocent people. But let’s consider this for a moment; a lot of people–even Christians–are quick to criticize Pat Robert and Fred Phelps, Jr. because of their interpretations of the events but how many have considered the irony of their own religious ideals in light of the incident?

In one moment there is praying for the families of the victims (which, again, I get and appreciate the implications of it)–presumably to Yahweh, right?–and in the next there is criticism of the people placing the blame on the community for inciting god’s wrath. Do you, humble reader, see the problem?

I do not mind laying it all out: If god can have control over the weather–I’m presuming he can based upon the Biblical account of god–what good is praying to him *after* the events of the storm? Additionally, if he can’t control the weather, then what good is saying a prayer? The damage is already done and the souls of those departed are already due to be judged upon their own merits. But there is a far more twisted issue here; the issue that if god can control the weather–why allow tornadoes in the first place? Why not just create a planet where tornadoes aren’t a thing? Surely he could do that. If I can imagine it, surely the all-mighty can too.

This is where I just can’t fathom this sort of belief; and while I appreciate the tone of articles like this (John Byron), I also find fault with the logic of it. It is a challenge–especially when we’re talking about the death of children. The problem is that this realization–that an all-powerful god that controls the weather allowed this to occur (or had a hand in it) is downright disconcerting for people–it makes them uncomfortable because no god that they’d believe in would be so cruel or apathetic, and so they vehemently disagree to the point where it actually contradicts their own faith-arguments. And that is a good thing; I’m glad that most Christians are morally astute enough to recognize the Bible’s wrongness about weather patterns and natural disasters. But that does raise some problems for the believer, doesn’t it? It did for me.

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“…and also I hate you.”

Certainly commentators have anticipated this; FOX News posted this article up, for example, claiming that the ‘practicality’ of faith and prayer rests in other peoples’ recognition of that faith, ergo they give generously (which, by the way, is absurd). In the Washington Post, a Christian author wrote a piece where he asks ‘Where was God?’ and his answer, though hollow, goes:

Human beings may not know all the answers of “why” God allows natural disasters or other evils in the universe. Although we personally would prefer that such disasters never occurred in the universe, we recognize intellectually that angry feelings towards tornadoes does not logically disprove God’s existence.

And he is certainly right in one respect–tornadoes do not disprove a god. In fact, for the strong believer tornadoes and destructive weather only further strengthen their faith in a deity like Yahweh the storm god of the Hebrew Bible. But Dave Sterrett, the author of this article, is wrong if he thinks that such catastrophe does not lay the foundations of doubt over an all-loving god. He writes, “The atheist is often assuming that if God is all good, then He would prefer to create a world without evil than to create a world in which evil exists.” But Sterrett doesn’t know his opponent well if this is what he thinks an atheist or secularist might argue.

Instead, the atheist is correct that an all-loving god would not intentionally send a storm to kill people, destroy their lives, ruin their homes, and kill their children. There is no love in such an act–and Sterrett must know this or he would not have resorted to a ‘mystery of god’ position (as in, ‘we can’t know why god does these things,…’) which is as absurd as the claim made by FOX that it is people’s faith–not their morality–that they give aid and comfort to the victims.

4. The Take-Away

In my humble opinion, the question shouldn’t be ‘why didn’t god stop the tornado?’ or ‘why did god allow this tornado to happen?’. The greater question–and one that is so often ignored–is, ‘what does this tragedy tell us about one another?’ What can we learn about how we deal with tragedy that might save us grief and sorrow in the future?

Through the clouds of wrath and flame I see a light–no, not god per se. I have no intentions of anthropomorphizing god. I do not indulge myself–as the artists of Aurelius’ column and the Christian monk Xiphilinus have done–in the process of finding god in the throes of destruction, and nor do I seek out god in the joy of wondrous actions. For me, as a deist, I’m content with naturalistic explanations for the goings-on of the world. No, I do not see god lifting crates of water. I don’t see god directing a tornado towards a school full of children either. Instead I see the light of humanity. I am not tied to certain dogmatic truths about a figure such as god–religiously or atheistically.

While some people are content with blaming god or blaming certain types of people they don’t like (I’d love to blame this on the absolute travesty that is the way education in the arts is being thrown away in this country–but I shall refrain). Storm systems exist on this planet like any other planet. We live in a universe that is not primarily geared towards supporting life; our existence might be nothing more than a byproduct of its main goal (and oddly enough, that may be why the universe is more suited towards the development of black holes).

Black holes snack on planets with masses much larger than Jupiter.

At the end of the day, what we find is that god is not the one keeping the lights on or the roof secure over our heads–at least, not directly. Seldom can Catholics and humanists agree on anything, yet when it comes to giving aid both groups have stepped up and provided help to those whose lives are devastated as a result of the weather. I do not attribute this to god, though perhaps some of you will. Instead I see the value in working together towards a common goal, putting aside pettiness and differences to help those who need it–to help other people for the sake of being good. Is that not a worthy goal? Is that not morally right? Can we stop the divisive language and work on rebuilding because it is the right thing to do?

Related:

See this (Joel Watts).

Your Guide to Crazy Claims

You might have noticed a new page on this site.  If not, well, here is your friendly nudge to go check it out.

Guide to Pseudo-Scholarship

This new page presents the most crazy, unfounded, and bizarre claims I’ve come across over the years and includes a multitude of useful links to blog posts and papers which debunk them.   Check them out, enjoy them, use them, and share the page with all your friends.

History’s ‘The Bible’ in Broader Contexts

In lieu of writing a much longer piece for an online journal, I have thought it useful to open up some to a conversation concerning the History Channel’s ‘The Bible’.  Recently lots has been made about the inaccuracies of the miniseries, as well as Glenn Beck’s (racist?) comments about how similar is their Satan character to “that guy”.  But not much has been said in its defense.

This is problematic; while there are inaccuracies, I am not sure that it diminishes from the quality or historical contexts that are present.  Before Jim West gets flustered (don’t hate me Jim), let me explain my meaning.

As students of the past, there is one constant fact to all of our ancient literature that I’m sure many of my readers will already know: they contain elements of what some would call ‘truth’ (in a philosophical or theological sense), elements of cultural memory/social memory (historical or otherwise), and lots more mythological constructs–fictions, to be blunt about it.  In the Gospels, this is probably the most clear-cut.  We have four canonical Gospels and dozens of noncanonical Gospels, some contain similar elements between each other (Matthew and Luke contain something like 90% of Mark’s Gospel with their own additional, unique content).

I often wonder how early receivers of these Gospels understood them.  As a literary critic at heart, reception history is an important function of any text; yet somehow I don’t think that Luke’s first readers grumbled on about how little it matched up with Matthew’s accounts.  I mean, you don’t generally find early Christian apologists complaining about how much Matthew and Luke’s birth narratives contradict each other. (critics of Christianity certainly did, but not generally the believers–which is telling)  Somehow four Gospels were, for the most part, accepted into a canon and appreciated as they were–with all of their complexities and nuance, with their competing theological narratives, with their chronological disparities.

Kind of like these discrepancies.

Now not everyone appreciated this, and we have examples of some later scribes attempting to unify the four versions (i.e., they attempted to ‘correct’ the disparities). But these attempts were widely unsuccessful (so far as we know); we still have four Gospels in the canon, contradictions and competitive elements included.  So at some point, along the line, these were still appreciated for what they were: rewritten narratives, tradition ‘history’.  Most of my readers who are academics themselves will undoubtedly be aware of all of this.  And in many respects, probably still accept the Gospels–begrudgingly or otherwise–with their many challenges and puzzling alterations.

But isn’t it interesting that when a miniseries does the same thing as the Gospel authors, many of us just cannot deal with it?  So the producers have a square script in the wrong period.  So what?  Matthew includes a scene where Herod goes about ordering the killing of a bunch of infants (which never happened).  Luke feels it is completely acceptable to add a census at the wrong time.  And lest we forget, Josephus and Philo were quite capable of rewriting the Bible in bizarre and inaccurate ways; Josephus has Alexander the Great reading the book of Daniel for goodness sake; a book which at that time would not be inked for another 160 years or more!  Philo has Heraclitus stealing philosophical ideas from Moses; if you want to talk about inaccuracies and historical improbabilities, look no further than the first century CE.

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“Look at this book which conveniently fits right into the theme of my narrative (that hasn’t been written yet)!”

Many have had a (understandable) problem with how white Jesus is portrayed in the film.  But Jesus has been portrayed as white for generations–not that this is an acceptable argument, because it isn’t–but he has not only ever been portrayed this way.  Some of the very first depictions of Jesus are him as a Greek (as Orpheus) or as a Roman (on a Roman sarcophagus where he is portrayed with no beard, a tunic of high quality, and thick, curly hair).

Certainly some early depictions of him appear closer to what one might imagine; painted on a catacomb wall, there stands Jesus–unbearded, olive-skinned though still clearly Caucasian, and in the desert near a tomb–with a magic wand conjuring up a dead Lazarus, for example.  But isn’t that just another example of an artist taking a personal liberty in their own portrayals of Jesus?

JRaiseLazarus

Expecto patronum!” or something.

Let’s be plainly honest: There is no way to know what ethnicity Jesus had been; one might like to imagine him as an approximation of what the popular concept of ‘Jewish’ was like in antiquity, but as Thomas L. Thompson has aptly pointed out, “Jewish” is not an ethnicity.  He may have been a black man, he may have had a Greek ancestry, he may have been an Egyptian, he may have been something else entirely–he just shows up out of nowhere in Mark with no birth narrative or discussion of ancestry (and Luke and Matthew included ancestry for theological reasons–not historical reasons).  Paul may or may not suggest that he was from the line of David (I tend to think not), but even so that does not ipso facto mean every descendent of his was ethnically tied to the region.  Some scholars would like to think so; but this is really sort of a moot point in some ways, isn’t it?  The earliest Christian communities didn’t care about Jesus’ racial background and portrayed him as whatever they saw fit for their communities.  After all, God does not have an ethnicity (nor a gender, for that matter).

Does History’s ‘The Bible’ contain errors, contradictions, inaccuracies, etc…?  Yes, absolutely.  But look at the material from which it is drawing inspiration.  When your actual source material is conflicting, inaccurate, vague, or diversely interpreted, any retelling or rewriting of that narrative will contain those elements.   It is patently unfair to criticize the miniseries for being ‘untrue to the source material’ when even our earliest interpreters were unconcerned with such anachronistic notions.  ‘The Bible’ is a modern day retelling, in the same vein as Josephus or Philo, of any of the Gospel authors, any of the apologists and scribes of antiquity.  Do you understand what it is you are watching?

If you truly do not like what the program offers, don’t watch it.  Or, better yet, watch it and use it in your classrooms.  Use it in your presentations and lectures to show, through example, how a text can be reinterpreted to fit a modern, synchronized world–but also how it was reinterpreted in the past.  Use it, don’t just thump your chest and brow-beat it.  We get it; you went to Seminary or a research institution and you want to prove you know what you’re talking about.  We know you’re smart.  So use that intellect and turn ‘The Bible’ into a learning tool, rather than shunning it.

The tools have changed, but the process is essentially the same; it just takes less time to achieve the same result.

Just my two-cents.  More to come.

Beware the Ides of March!

Caesar:
Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue shriller than all the music
Cry “Caesar!” Speak, Caesar is turn’d to hear.

Soothsayer:
Beware the ides of March.

Julius Caesar Act 1, scene 2, 15–19

And here we are, the Ides of March!  Made famous by the date of the assassination of Julius Caesar (15 Mar). So I have provided here a little collection of useful links and images and articles for your own use.  Enjoy.

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Area where Julius Caesar was assassinated.

  And here is a re-imagining of the event:

Though it probably didn’t happen like this. Just sayin’.

Here is Plutarch’s description of the event:

Now when the senate was gone in before to the chamber where they were to sit, the rest of the company placed themselves close about Caesars chair, as if they had some suit to make to him, and Cassius, turning his face to Pompeys statue, is said to have invoked it, as if it had been sensible of his prayers. Trebonius, in the meanwhile, engaged Antonys attention at the door, and kept him in talk outside. When Caesar entered, the whole senate rose up to him. As soon as he was sat down, the men all crowded round about him, and set Tillius Cimber, one of their own number, to intercede in behalf of his brother that was banished; they all joined their prayers with his, and took Caesar by the hand, and kissed his head and his breast. But he putting aside at first their supplications, and afterwards, when he saw they would not desist, violently rising up, Tillius with both hands caught hold of his robe and pulled it off from his shoulders, and Casca, that stood behind him, drawing his dagger, gave him the first, but a slight wound, about the shoulder. Caesar snatching hold of the handle of the dagger, and crying out aloud in Latin, “Villain Casca, what do you?” he, calling in Greek to his brother, bade him come and help. And by this time, finding himself struck by a great many hands, and looking around about him to see if he could force his way out, when he saw Brutus with his dagger drawn against him, he let go Cascas hand, that he had hold of and covering his head with his robe, gave up his body to their blows. And they so eagerly pressed towards the body, and so many daggers were hacking together, that they cut one another; Brutus, particularly, received a wound in his hand, and all of them were besmeared with the blood.

A coin commemorating the event:

One of the most famous coins of all time is the EID MAR denarius issued by Marcus Junius Brutus in 43/42 BC. When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, he threw Rome into more than three years of civil war, eliminating his opponents along the way. In 49 BC, many leading citizens, including some sixty Roman Senators, had come to see Caesar as a power-grabber who wanted to make himself king. This was an unacceptable situation for men like Brutus, who wished to retain their beloved Republic.

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